Bill Dunlap: Department Alumnus and Visual Artist

Do art and literature intersect? Is a paragraph merely words on a page, or is there a visual vista hiding among the punctuation? Is a painting merely brush strokes, or is there a complex narrative woven into the canvas? For Bill Dunlap, a 1989 graduate of the English Department, art and literature are a complex cohesion and an inspiration for his visual art. 

“I think of text as image and image as text,” Bill explained.

“When you see image as text, it could mean viewing a work of art and piecing together a mood or characters. But text as image is also a great power, that’s why I picked this ridiculous, long word for the title of my show. Staring at the word, the text becomes an image, or even a sculpture.”

Bill’s exhibition at the Art Gallery at the University is entitled “Honorificabilitudinitatibus,” a word used in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Much of Bill’s visual art pays homage to his studies as an English major, and his first interest, language. A self-professed “literature nerd,” Bill fondly remembers long hours of reading in his undergraduate days. At the University, Bill took Shakespeare classes with Professors Donna Hamilton and Sandy Mack, as well as classes that introduced him to writers such as Chaucer and Milton.

“I thought I’d hate it, but I loved it,” Bill recalled. 

Like many undergraduates, Bill didn’t know where his degree would take him. Hailing from a rural upbringing, he discovered art over time by experimenting with visual art, music, and writing. After graduating from the University, he worked in various temp jobs before moving to Japan to teach English for a year. In Japan, Bill began to reflect deeply on his time as an English major. He found himself in a bookstore in Tokyo, realizing that he wanted to purchase and reread Paradise Lost.

“I realized what I had learned in college had deeply affected me. It was then that I also started dabbling in visual art.”

From Japan, Bill moved to San Francisco where he further pursued his interest in visual art, music, and writing. He took a liking to experimental forms and published his writing in experimental journals. Bill found that others responded to his visual art more than his writing or music. He joked that being a writer would have been an easier path. 

"Writers can write wherever, artists need supplies and studio space, they have to pack and ship their finished pieces. It would have been easier if people liked my writing.” 

Bill applies what he learned as an English major to his life. Having an understanding of literature has given him patience when dealing with complexity. As is true in literature, a character may seem inherently bad, but with a nuanced reading, the character’s motivations become clear. With this understanding, Bill believes, literature scholars resist knee jerk reactions and have the advantage of seeing the world beyond the black and white. 

It is apparent in his visual art that Bill has the ability to see beyond the black and white. 

He recited a line from Love’s Labour’s Lost, “Black is the badge of hell, / The hue of dungeons and the school of night.”

“In context, it’s about two men debating race. If you decontextualize it, and just think about black as a color without the notion of race, it’s very inspiring to me.”

Similar to the process of writing a critical paper, Bill thought deeply about the line and became fixated on the mysterious aura surrounding the word “black.” The line moved him to paint figures against black backgrounds.

"Benito Cereno" 

Bill has taken inspiration from other writers as well. He painted “In Caves of Power” as a reply to John Berryman’s “Dream Song 1.” Berryman and Bill underwent similar hardships in life, and Bill’s piece responds to overcoming these. In the center of this piece, Bill’s own poem reads, “IN CAVES OF POWER / IN WAVES OF SPLENDOR / IN RAGS OF GOLD IN / EMPTY CAGES IN / PERSONAL VISIONS / IN VICE IN DOUBT / AT PEACE / AT LAST.” 

"In Caves of Power" 

On a drive through the state, it is possible to see the artist’s work. Through a project initiated by the University and curator John Shipman, Bill was chosen to paint one barn in each county of Maryland. The barns feature murals and poems, and Bill was impressed by the poetry chosen by the barn owners, including a scene from Paradise Lost describing an idyllic day in Eden.

Barn on Maryland's eastern shore 

Bill had some tough love advice for undergraduates looking to pursue a career in the arts. 

“You shouldn’t choose art, writing or painting, as a career because, there is no career. There’s no job or health benefits. If you find that art chooses you and you have no choice but to do it, then you are meant to do it and will do it.”

It is evident that art chose Bill and today, he continues to paint, write, play music, and pull vision from his English degree. His artwork is also displayed on the first floor of Tawes, outside the Undergraduate Studies office. 



*Special thanks to Bill Dunlap for permission to use images  

View a segment on Honorificabilitudinitatibus from WETA Around Town here: